Arthur Miller’s Playing for Time in Sheffield

Of all subjects to write a play about, life in Auschwitz must be the most difficult. Arthur Miller’s Playing for Time, originally written for television in 1980, has been bravely revived at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. Sian Phillips as Fania Fenelon, the French cabaret singer, whose life was saved because she joined other women musicians in the camp to play for the Nazi monsters, is truly remarkable. Aged 81, she is on the stage almost throughout, has to sing, suffer abuse, and cradle her fellow inmates; and does all of this with a haunting dignity. I was also impressed by the other female actresses who displayed, bodily and emotionally, exactly the right degree of forlorn desperation; and managed well their musical parts, sometimes having to play deliberately badly. The set, by Ti Green, was predominantly bare but functioned most effectively; and Richard Beecham’s direction was taut, energetic and at times shattering in its impact.

But, at the end, I left the theatre with a sense of dissatisfaction and I think that this was due to Miller’s text. ¬†While the physical demeanour of the cast may have given some idea of life as it was in the death camp, the dialogue with its extroverted mixture of moralising, banter and despair was just too far from authenticity. As it happens, this was not the first theatrical representation I had seen on the theme. In 2006 I attended in Germany a performance of an opera on the same subject, Die Frauenorchester von Auschwitz, and though it could not measure up to the scale of the horrors perpetrated, it grated less than Miller’s play – because music can express what words cannot.